Thanksgiving traditions

I’ve always been an American, but I didn’t grow up like one. My mother is from England and my father from California; they went to the U.S. consulate when I was just three years old to register me as a U.S. citizen. Where was I? Paris, France, where I lived for my entire childhood. It is a place with many delicious foods and food traditions that I indulged in liberally, but Thanksgiving was not one of them.

When I moved to New York in late 2012, I began visiting the American side of my family in Boston for Thanksgiving. As an American-on-paper-only who had just decided to live in the motherland, I was excited to start celebrating this holiday, but my first Thanksgivings were not the traditional home-cooked affair.


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What Came Before

My father’s aunt Sally was the matriarch of the family. I considered her a grandmother, as all of my parents’ parents were long gone. A tiny woman with an outsize personality, Sally was the core around which everything revolved, although she would have hated me putting it that way. Deeply caring of each and every one, she was also no-nonsense and acutely averse to people fussing or troubling themselves, especially for her.

Sally was a wonderful cook and host. Her daughter, Nancy, told me about Thanksgivings back in the day: always a turkey, sweet potato casserole, crazy Jell-O molds, and my grandmother Marcia’s pecan pie recipe.

pecan pie


Evolving, Adapting & Honoring Traditions

By the time I came into the Thanksgiving picture, the reality was quite different. Sally moved from her big, beautiful house in Brookline to a home, first in independent living and eventually in assisted living. She kept all her marbles and her sharp sense of humor, but her physical health rapidly deteriorated, and moving to a home was an emotionally traumatic experience for her. She told Nancy not to cook Thanksgiving—it was too much trouble, and boy did she dislike trouble.

“Forget it, I’m doing it,” Nancy insisted, but it would soon become too much for her too.

From then on, Thanksgiving would be ordered in. We still had the traditional dishes. A turkey, of course; green beans, which Sally loved; Brussels sprouts; mashed potatoes…all delivered to Sally’s door already cooked.

herbed fresh green bean caserole recipe


Nancy would still make the stuffing, and when my parents started coming, she would make an extra gluten-free stuffing for my dad, who has sensitivities. It often turned out better.

Related Reading: 9 Amazing Thanksgiving Dinners You Don’t Have to Cook

Nancy did not let the ready-made Thanksgiving get in the way of her biggest passion: food, and shopping for food. She went out of her way to find interesting snacks for us to munch on throughout the day, as we chatted, watched TV, and played games. She would go to Formaggio Kitchen, Flour Bakery, and other gourmet stores in Boston.

While the selection changed every year, two things became staples of our Thanksgivings: a fabulous display of cheeses and shrimp cocktail. The latter’s perennial appearance was likely due to my dad, who would be quite content eating shrimp every day for the rest of his life. I was always more interested in the cheeses, which Nancy and I would geek out on, making sure we thoroughly taste-tested each kind.

cheese plate with nuts, crackers, and honey


While I didn’t have the same home-cooked Thanksgiving experience as everyone else, I still cherished the holiday, making new traditions in my new home and getting to know my American family even better.

Leslie, Nancy’s daughter, would come from San Francisco. Just a few years older than me, Leslie brightens every room she’s in with her constant stream of general chatter, jokes, and commentary about everything and anything, from her cats to Millennial pop culture. Neal, one of Sally’s sons, would come in the early evening for a “second Thanksgiving” after he enjoyed the one his girlfriend, Francesca, threw for her own family in another part of Boston.

Neal, quite possibly Leslie’s Boomer counterpart (although neither of them would like me saying that), is always armed with sharp satirical commentary about the demise of society. He would more often than not blame young people for this phenomenon, sparking witty banter with Leslie and me, all in good fun.

Related Reading: Small Talk Topics for the Thanksgiving Table

There was also always plenty of politics talk, but mostly the arguments were about who’s a lefty and who’s leftier.

What Came After

how to brine turkey dry brine and wet brine methods

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And so the years went by, until Thanksgiving 2017, which was a special one. It was deeply sad: Sally had been moved to yet another, much smaller room in the home, and while no one acknowledged this openly at the time, we all knew this would be her last.

It also happened to be a blast. Despite her predicament, Sally was in good spirits that day, surrounded by family and making conversation. I remember laughing—a lot. We booked one of the communal spaces for our meal to have more space. After dinner, we went back to her room and watched “Bad Moms,” which Leslie had put on, forgetting how inappropriate and not-parent-friendly it was. But everyone was in hysterics, including Sally, who looked at her happiest in a while.

Sally passed away in the summer of 2018 at the age of 96. She was the anchor of our Thanksgivings and it would not be immediately clear what would happen to them, but at the funeral reception, a seed was planted.

A photo of Sally and Marcia, courtesy of the author

Over cheese and crudités, someone asked what Leslie and I were to each other. We always knew we were some kind of cousins (and would always forget: is it second or removed?) but in that moment, it dawned on us what the closest connection was. We said in unison: “Our grandmothers were sisters!”

Leslie and I decided to host Thanksgiving that year in her apartment in Brooklyn, where she was living by then. We share a love of food and cooking and took our duties as hosts very seriously. There was a planning meeting, and a Google spreadsheet with several tabs to organize everything: a master shopping list, links to all the recipes, a list of appliances and tools, and a day-of plan of action.

Nancy and my parents were impressed. It was our first time making a turkey and it came out amazing—team dry-brined for the win! We went all out for the sides: green beans with garlic and miso, maple-glazed sweet potato fries with bacon, chile-infused mashed potatoes, Port gravy, chestnut stuffing (gluten-free!), and cranberry-cherry sauce. And of course, we made sure there was plenty of cheese and shrimp cocktail.

shrimp cocktail


Leslie lives in Minneapolis now, but she and Nancy will be coming to my parents’ home in Tarrytown, N.Y., this year, and we will once again be co-hosts (Neal and Francesca will be in Boston). At the beginning of this month, I posted an Instagram story of my Thanksgiving-issue food magazines with the caption “Leslie I’m ready.” Seconds later, she replied with her own post: the exact same magazines in her home, with the caption “I too am ready.” We’ve since had our planning call and the Google spreadsheet is under construction.

On the menu this year? A spice-rubbed turkey, glazed Brussels sprouts with pistachios, potatoes with spiced oil, the same chestnut stuffing as last year, and Samin Nosrat’s focaccia, because, why not. And yes, there will be cheese and shrimp cocktail.

I know it would have made Sally incredibly happy that the family continued the holiday in its own way, especially with her granddaughters at the helm.

Header image courtesy of Maren Caruso / Photodisc / Getty Images

Emma is a writer and editor who covers food, drinks, travel, and culture. She grew up in Paris, where she got an early taste for good food and wine, and moved to the U.S. in 2012. She would never get tired of eating pasta or soup dumplings, but does miss her home's ubiquitous French pastries. If she's not writing or reading, Emma is probably in her kitchen executing a cooking project; tucking her feet under a restaurant table; or traveling, most often to a new state. Follow her on Instagram @emmacbalter and Twitter @EmmaBalter.
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